FARGO — Trey or Zeb?
Zeb or Trey?
Yes, Noah. Although, listening to Noah, maybe not.
Welcome to the greatest quarterback mystery at North Dakota State since former head coach Chris Klieman played possum for three weeks before unleashing Carson Wentz instead of a young Easton Stick on woefully overconfident Jacksonville State in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision title game in January 2016. The Gamecocks haven’t been the same since.
These days the subterfuge revolves around who will be the starter for the Bison in 2019, as the program that’s dominated FCS since 2011 tries to re-calibrate again after losing an uber-successful coach to a higher level, an all-timer quarterback and a pack of other seniors that led the team to an undefeated season.
Gone is Stick, the winningest passer in FCS history, drafted by the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers. Possibilities to replace him include redshirt freshman Trey Lance, junior transfer Zeb Noland and, apparently, sophomore Noah Sanders. All three were named as competing for the starting job at the team’s media day Wednesday, Aug. 8, and all three sat at a table for a group interview session.
How realistic is it that Sanders could be the starting QB when the Bison open Aug. 31 at Target Field in Minneapolis against Butler? When asked how he handles the pressure of being evaluated every day on everything he does, Sanders said he learned from former NDSU career backup Cole Davis on how to deal with not being the starter. That would seem to be a tell.
As for Lance and Noland, neither first-year head coach Matt Entz nor associate head coach and quarterback guru Randy Hedberg failed to slip under interrogation. Entz continues to say he’ll wait until 10 days before the opener to name a starter.
Hedberg said Lance is the better runner while Noland throws “very well,” has the edge in college experience and makes quicker decisions in the passing game.
Thanks to the NCAA’s rule that allows players to see action in four or fewer games without losing a year of eligibility, Lance played as a true freshman in two games during NDSU’s 15-0 march to another title. Included was an electrifying 44-yard touchdown run against North Alabama at the Fargodome. That 6-foot-3, 220-pound body can scoot.
Hedberg also swears by Lance’s throwing ability. There is so much potential there and the Bison coaches know it. Lance was the program’s highest-rated quarterback recruit coming out of Marshall, Minnesota.
“Zeb probably doesn’t run like Trey does, to the extent that Trey does,” Hedberg said. “But I think Zeb is a very capable runner. I don’t think he has the same type of running ability as Trey, but he can run and escape pressure. He throws the ball very well. He sees the field very well.
“Trey is still learning those aspects of it. He doesn’t have the experience of playing against that multitude of looks you’re going to get in college football from a coverage standpoint, so he’s got to see those looks. Zeb has done that at his previous school.”
Noland’s previous school was Iowa State of the Big 12, where he spent three years after being a highly recruited prospect out of Watkinsville, Georgia. After redshirting, he was in the signal caller mix the next two seasons and started five games. He threw for 263 yards as a redshirt freshman against Oklahoma State and started four games last year, but left Iowa State after being buried on the depth chart behind more versatile quarterbacks.
One knock on Noland is that he was strictly a shotgun quarterback at Iowa State, never taking a snap under center. NDSU is one of the few college programs that has its quarterback mostly under center making reads and calling plays based on the defense.
“I ran this offense in high school under center and we hardly got in the shotgun,” Noland said. “It was hand the ball off and let the running back do their job. I think high school helped me prepare for that, just take a snap from under center.”
Lance had the advantage of learning under Stick last season and, with the four-game rule, spending his true freshman year with the top offense. Stick spent his true freshman year, before the four-game rule, as the scout team QB to prepare the Bison defense for that week’s opponent.